The pressures on one of the world’s most famous centres of biodiversity, the Galapagos Islands where Darwin studied his famous finches which contributed to the theory of evolution, have been highlighted by Ecuador’s President and Unesco, the UN’s scientific and cultural body. The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has warned that he is considering a temporary suspension of tourist permits to the heavily-visited Galapagos islands and enforcing rigorous population restrictions to prevent further environmental harm. Tourism and fishing are both bringing massive pressure on the fragile islands.
"We are pushing for a series of actions to overcome the huge institutional, environmental and social crisis in the islands," said Correa after signing an emergency decree on tuesday April 10.
Mr Correa called on his cabinet and local authorities to meet urgently to find ways of better preserving the country’s most popular tourist destination. He did not provide any details about the possible restrictions, but said the country would consider suspending some tourism permits.
The director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center warned last month of the threats to the flora and fauna of the “fragile and delicate” volcanic island chain.
A United Nations delegation is visiting the islands to determine whether the World Heritage site should be officially declared “in danger”.
Professor Richard Keynes, the retired emeritus professor of physiology at Cambridge University, UK, and great-grandson of Charles Darwin, said tourism is interfering with the ecological life on the archipelago.
"The Galapagos are in danger of being overoccupied by tourists and for a long time I have been worried about it. The number of visitors used to be under control and they could only land when conservationists were with them. Now there are so many tourists that they want to land a thousand people at a time and you simply cannot do that without destroying the islands.
"The president is right to control numbers. They will not make money if they lose the islands."
John Harris, the executive director of the Galapagos Conservation Trust, said the recent growth in tourist numbers was a major concern.
"They have a wildlife that is untouched by the outside world, but the outside world is coming to them. It is a special experience, but by visiting them, you destroy them. People live there only because of the tourism."
In the mid 1970s tourism to the Galapogos was a trickle with no more than 7,000 visiting the islands annually. But last year 120,000 tourists visited the Galapagos, up from 40,000 in 1991. Numbers are rising at an annual rate of 12 per cent, fuelling new building on the islands to accommodate them. Over-fishing is also blamed for putting some marine species at risk.
Fishing and tourism are the two mainstays of the Galapagos economy, and the money they produce has led to an influx of people from the Ecuadoran mainland. The official population of the 13 main and six smaller islands is around 18,000 people, but an additional 15,000 people are believed to be present illegally.
Immigrants and tourists have led to rising pollution and an increase in invasive species. There are now 748 species of introduced plants compared to the 500 species of native plants.
"The national park does an incredible job, but if the population continues to grow, the greater the possibility of new species being introduced to the islands and the greater the human footprint," says Lauren Spurrier, managing director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Galapagos program.
Officials in 1998 limited the number of tour boats allowed in the waters around the islands to about 90 licensed craft, but tour companies have decreased the average length of tours, allowing more tourists to visit. Since last year, larger tourist ships have also been allowed into the islands to meet tourism demand. And with 36 Boeing 737 flights arriving on the islands every week, there are plans to open a new airport.
Given the economic importance of tourism, it is highly unlikely that tourism would be even temporarily banned by the government, despite a spokesman for the Tourism Ministry warning that the government might suspend tourism permits "until scientific studies see exactly how much the capacity of the islands can withstand without too much impact". Indeed, banning tourism may do more harm than good, throwing many thousands of people out of work and carrying the risk of increasing illegal fishing as the only other way of earning a living.
Placing an economic value on wildlife is often the best way of protecting it. In parts of Africa, for example, endangered animal species and fragile ecosystems have survived precisely because they have value as tourist attractions. In the Galapagos, illegal fishing for shark fin soup threatens the shark population, but tourism at least gives an economic incentive to protect sharks and other animals. The dilemma, however, is that tourism also encourages illegal immigation by people from the economically deprived mainland, and stronger action needs to be taken to control this. Strict limits on tourism also need to be maintained and codes of behaviour rigorously enforced, to try and protect the ecosystem and make tourism sustainable. Otherwise, the famous wildlife may be on borrowed time.
The tourism issues of the Galapagos Islands are explored in a number of articles and references on Leisuretourism.com. A quick search for the Geographical Descriptor ‘Galapagos Islands’ on CAB Abstracts finds 267 bibliographic records on subjects including wildlife biology, the environment and tourism. A few selected references are given below.
The Galápagos Islands: test site for theories of evolution and ecotourism. Honey, M. / Ecotourism and sustainable development: who owns paradise?., 1999, pp. 101-130, 59 ref.
Limits to ecotourism growth and sustainability: the Galápagos example. Nolan, M. L. , Nolan, S. / Pacific Rim tourism., 1997, pp. 144-155
Conservation against nature: the Galapagos Islands. Grenier, C. / Conservation contre nature: les îles Galápagos, 2000, pp. 376 , 12 pp. of ref.
Galapagos: ecotourism versus conservation. Parra-Bozzano, D. / Industry and Environment, 2001, Vol. 24, No. 3/4, pp. 30-32, 7 ref.
An analysis of nature tourism in the Galápagos Islands. MacFarland, C. / Bulletin de l’Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, Entomologie, 2000, Vol. 70, No. Supplement, pp. 53-63, 19 ref.
Alien insects: threats and implications for conservation of Galápagos Islands. Causton, C. E. , Peck, S. B. , Sinclair, B. J. , Roque-Albelo, L. , Hodgson, C. J. , Landry, B. / Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 2006, Vol. 99, No. 1, pp. 121-143, many ref.
Galapagos at the crossroads. Elvey, A. / Seafood International, 2006, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 75-76
Vegetation changes over three decades on Santa Fe Island, Galápagos, Ecuador. Hamann, O. / Nordic Journal of Botany, 2004, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 143-152, 35 ref.
Extinction behind our backs: the possible fate of one of the Darwin’s finch species on Isla Floreana, Galápagos. Grant, P. R. , Grant, B. R. , Petren, K. , Keller, L. F. / Biological Conservation, 2005, Vol. 122, No. 3, pp. 499-503, 35 ref.